As written by Robert L. Fowler for the book "Shoot-Downs and Captures of 390th Bomb Group Personnel", compiled by David W. Wetherill, August, 1991.
Listen to Robert tell his story on May 30, 1993. (You can start the audio and come back here while it's playing)
Another Unbelievable Shot Down Story
The December 20, 1943 mission for the 390th Bomb Group was Bremen. The Big Bad Bremen. We had been there before and vividly remembered the flak barrage. Our crew was part of the 570th Squadron.
Pilot- 2nd Lt. Bill Riley, Copilot- 2nd Lt. Robert L. Fowler, Navigator- Ed Kodis, Bombardier- 2nd Lt. Red Mulloy, TTG-Ray Brooks, RG-S/Sgt. Carboneau, BTG- S/Sgt. Fura, LWG-S/Sgt. Bob Hansen, RWG-’Sell, TG S/Sgt. Frank Marianni.
By the time we reached the French Coast our No. 4 engine, that had just been replaced, was heating. We backed off a little on the power and relaxed our tight flying position on the outside of the formation. About fifteen minutes before we were to make a ninety degree turn to the left, toward Bremen, number 4 was smoking, and we were falling behind.
We had a dilemma! We could see German fighters trailing our formation, waiting for stragglers. We had no fighter escort this deep into the continent. We decided to “cut across shorty’ to join the intended run to Bremen because the engine had to be shut down. It was windmilling and smoking.
Then all hell broke out. Flak was hitting us as we were losing altitude. Another engine was smoking. ME 1lOs and FW 109s began their shooting gallery. The ME l1Os were coming up under us, making huge holes with their 20 mm cannons. Our gunners got four or five fighters, but we were badly crippled. Most of the controls out, the auto pilot out and couldn’t dump our bombs. We dove the plane down to the treetops to protect our belly, red-lining all the way. Another engine on fire, we realized we weren’t going to get back to Framlingham. We thought we might be able to make our way to Sweden, but at about this time we skimmed over the trees right over Wilhelmshaven on the coast and they shot everything they had at us. Cap pistols, BB guns, up to 105 mm cannons.
We could ditch or bail out. Ditching was out because we knew that we would last thirty minutes in the North Sea in December. So, Riley ordered everyone to bail out. Up to this point no one had been injured, which was incredible. Lt. Ed Kodis, the navigator, was the first man out, and we found out later from the Germans that he drowned in a canal. I’m sure he was shot while he was in his parachute, because we were under fire all the time the crew was bailing out at 500 feet! Riley and I were fighting to control the plane halfway level. We both stood up behind the pilots’ seats. The plan was to dive out the front hatch on the count of three. I beat Riley to the hole and got my chute open at about a thousand feet. I saw the plane, with six tons of bombs still on board, crash through a forest. No explosion and I did not see Riley chute out. As I was coming down in my chute, I could picture in my mind a squadron briefing the week before presented by a guy in a body cast telling us how not to land in a parachute backwards. I managed to get forward just as I landed in about two feet of snow on a Wehrmacht drill field! Two German soldiers ran toward me shouting, “Hands up!” Every time I put my hands up my chute would drag me filling my A-2 jacket with snow. I finally disregarded the rifles and dumped the chute and unbuckled. They marched me to the day room where a sergeant sat me down in a chair. He got on a phone shouting German. They did not search me, but when I reached for my cigarettes and lighter, they took them away from me.
About two hours after dark a Luftwaffe sergeant came, searched me and locked me in a little paddy wagon. The next hour or two he picked up the rest of my crew. Then lo and behold! There came Riley, alive and grinning but limping, with one flying boot missing. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d thought he had gone down with the plane. Riley said, after I dove out of the plane it dipped the left wing so bad that the centrifugal force prevented him to make it to the hatch. He then got back in the pilot’s seat and shoved the wheel forward to get it over with! Riley said the plane skittered through the trees tearing one wing off and the throttle quadrant had his foot pinned down. He managed to slip his foot from his boot, fell outside the plane, and crawled away, where the Germans found him. Now, that is unbelievable!
Gathering our crew took nearly all night and by morning we were in Bremen where they paraded us through the streets, people jeering and spitting at us. Seemed like hours and hours. They lined us against a brick wall, placed a tripod machine gun as if to execute us. Our youngest Sergeant, Ray Brooks, mumbled to me that he was scared, so I told him I was, too, but not to let the SOBs know that. He mumbled that I'd made him feel better.
After this ordeal they took us by train to Frankfurt on Main where we were put in solitary confinement for about three days. They threatened us with shooting for being gangsters and spies to get information. We didn’t know anything, and we didn’t tell them anything. We got out on Christmas Day 1943.
They put us in a box car with other prisoners with one bucket of water and three loaves of the hardest black bread I ever saw. We were sent to Stalag Luft 1, at Barth on the Baltic Sea. There were about 100 British pilots who had been shot down at Dunkirk in 1939! We were very hungry but managed to survive until May of 1945 when our captors informed us that all prisoners of war were to be marched to Berlin or be liquidated because the Russians were coming to our vicinity. We flat refused to budge, and the guards left during the night. We took over the towns, rounded up what livestock we could find. A few paratroop prisoners, knowledgeable of booby traps, etc., went over to the adjoining airport and “debugged the premises, got the radios going and in contact with London. The mayor of Barth wanted to send all their women and children out to our camp, but of course our officers refused to take that responsibility. When the Russians came to Barth, it was reported that the mayor shot his wife and daughter and then hanged himself.
I was happier to get away from the Russians than the Germans. The Russians had to document everyone before we could leave the camp.
We were finally flown out to Rheims, France, to Camp Twenty Grand, a tent city reception center for prisoners of war. We were fed soup and soft foods and eggnog because our stomachs were shrunken. For several days, I would walk through many thousands of ex-prisoners until I found our sergeants who had been interned in Austria. They were together and well.
We left Le Havre, France, on a Liberty ship, June 1, 1945 and arrived fifteen days later to see the Statue of Liberty and New York.
I want to add some more details that was left out of the brief article that was printed in the booklet compiled by David Wetherill for the 390th bomb Group Veterans reunion in Tucson, Arizona.
The last 3 months in Stalag Luft 1 we only got Barley soup or Cabbage soup with a half-rotten potato once a day, then at the last we only got a bowl of rutabaga soup about PM each day.
When the Russians came into our area, they thought they were liberating us, when in reality we had things in our control, had radio contact with London, asking for paratroops and food. We had been instructed to stay put & they promised to fly us out to France – which they did about a month later. We had rounded up a few head of cattle, hogs, geese, etc. and had them on a peninsula where we planned to orderly slaughter & eat but the Russians discovered them, and machine gunned all of them. So, when we heard about this I told some guys in our barracks to go cut some steaks and I began to tear the barracks down to make a fire so we could have a “Texas Bar-B Que”! After eating we got sick and vomited, our stomachs were so shrunk we could not handle it. We kept trying and they did taste good going down but not too good coming back up.
The Russians told us that they were going to take us by trucks to the Black Sea! That is all the way across Europe! We knew we could never make it. Finally, some adjutant General officers came and nullified that plan. The Russians detained us until we all were documented and had passports, which was very frustrating to us waiting to go home. Some of the guys took off behind the Russians. This was very risky so most of us waited.
On Mother’s Day, 1945, the B-17s came to airlift us to Le Havre, France. The plan was this: using only one runway on adjacent airfield, sunup to sundown a fleet of B-17s would make a bucket-brigade pickup, taking 35 men at a time. The ten to 15 thousand men organized into groups of 35. As each rescue plane landed – and almost before its wheels stopped rolling – a group of 35 would be ready to climb aboard. We were trucked to “Camp Twenty Grand” where I remember getting a badly needed haircut by an Italian prisoner of war. He used a straight razor! I was a bit leery of an enemy waving a straight razor! We were promised a new uniform and a $100, then might get to go to Paris for R&D. Most of us got the $100 but no uniform. I waited for a uniform and never made it to Paris, however a bunch of my friends took off for Paris. Later when we reported to Miami Beach, Florida for re-orientation, I talked to a few of these fellows. They had a wild time in Paris, and when their money was gone, they would go to the Paris Headquarters and act like they had just escaped from a prison camp, then get another $100 and a uniform. One guy told me that he went through this process several times before they sent him home.
I want to record in chronological order my term of service in the Air Force. I had always wanted to fly, never dreamed I would be able to. After two years of college at John Tarleton Jr. College, I rant out of money, came home and luckily got a job in 1940 at the Texas Plasterco Co. at Plasterco, at 37 ½ ¢ an hour. Living at home, I saved money, bought a secondhand car, a 1937 Ford Coupe. War was declared December 7, 1941, then I heard that anyone single & healthy with two years college could volunteer for Aviation Cadets. So, I went to Sweetwater to take physical and found out that I would have to leave that day if I passed! Well, I had not resigned my job or made that kind of preparation so I told them I would come back later after I had made arrangements. Later, after I quit my job, I went back and found that the situation had changed. After passing physical and had to take a test, they told me that they would call me. So, I waited and ran out of money with no job, so I volunteered into regular Air Force subject to appointment to Aviation Cadets in July 1942. Finally got appointment when I was at Sheppard Field, Wichita Falls. In October, started pilot training, graduated July 1943, 2nd Lt. twin-engine pilot, Ellington Field, Texas. Four days before graduation a hurricane came through our base, another wild story.
I thought I would go to B-25 or P-38 twin engine training, but the B-17 4-engine losses were so bad in Europe they sent me to Walla Walla, Washington for B-17 training.
We went overseas on the Queen Elizabeth, November 1943. My base was Framlingham, north of London. The winter weather in England was miserable for flying. Our first mission was December 16, 1943 to Bremen, Germany. We made that one OK except one engine was heating & smoking coming home. They replaced that engine, and we went on our last mission to Bremen, December 20, 1943, when we got shot down. As I have stated before, we left Le Havre, France, June 1, 1945 and arrived in New York on June 15th. We went by train to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas where they gave me shots, etc., and a 90-day rehabilitation leave at home.
Everyone at Hamlin treated me like a hero! Everything was rationed, sugar, gasoline, tires, etc., but the ration board gave me a bale of gas & tire coupons for an old 1941 Dodge sedan I bought.
Marge was working at the Waggoner’s Drug Store. We started dating and I tried to get her to marry me. She kept putting me off. We could have a wonderful honeymoon at Miami Beach where the Air Force had all of the large hotels reserved for Ex-Prisoners of War re-orientation. Marge said she wouldn’t marry me while I was in the service, so I was able to get out on points after the Japanese surrender which happened in August 1945 while I was at Miami Beach. When I got home, she then said that I had to have a job! So, I got a job with Stanolind Oil & Gas Exploration Department as a surveyor, then we got married on the weekend and went to work at Portales, New Mexico on Monday morning!
Robert Fowler, October, 1991
MISSION SYNOPSIS from the 390th.org
On December 20, 1943, a force of 546 bombers was dispatched by VIII Bomber Command to attack the port area of Bremen. One of the targets for this mission was the Deschimag shipyard, which had been targeted by the 390th four days earlier.
En route to the target area, the thirty-four bombers from the 390th Bomb Group encountered sixty enemy fighters, many armed with rockets. However, the intensity of fire they received from Allied gunners caused most of their fighter attacks to break up. Some air crews reported that the German pilots seemed reluctant to commit to their attack runs, which in turn allowed the bomber crews to figure out what they were planning to do in advance, and prepare accordingly.
While poor weather conditions had made it impossible for air crews to directly observe their targets the last time, this time the shipyard was completely obscured by a thick cloud of smoke that could be seen from fifty miles away. Allied incendiary bombs set fire to warehouses and docks, with the flames being so large and so intense that some people reported they reached as high as a thousand feet in the air.
Twenty-seven planes were lost during this mission to Bremen, with another 250 suffering various levels of damage (three being written off as beyond repair).
320 men were killed, wounded, or went missing in action.
Three of the aircraft, and thirty of the men, that were lost during this mission were from the 390th:
- Unnamed (237763-D, 571) (Robert's Aircraft): after suffering intense damage from enemy fighters, the aircraft was unable to remain airborne and crashed near Bremen. One member of the crew, Edward Kodis, was killed. The other nine men were taken prisoner by German forces.
- Unnamed (237883-H, 571 [crew assigned to 569th BS]): after being hit by flak, the aircraft went down and crashed at Bremen. Two members of the crew, Frank K. Hoffman and Daniel B. Lempka, were killed. The surviving eight men were taken prisoner by German forces.
- Rovin Ramona (230476-L, 568): after being hit by flak, the "Rovin Ramona" went down and crashed at Bremen. There were no survivors.
The Story of the 390th Bombardment Group (Paducah: Turner Publishing Company, 1947), 56.
Eighth Air Force Operations History: Missions." 8th Air Force Historical Society, http://www.8thafhs.com/missions.php
"390th Bomb Group: History of Aircraft Assigned." Unpublished manuscript. 390th Memorial Museum. Joseph A. Moller Library.